Fairly compelling improvised music that’s alternately busy and droney from the ad-hoc trio Thanos Chrysakis, James O’Sullivan and Jerry Wigens on their Syneuma (AURAL TERRAINS TRRN0621) CD…O’Sullivan has been noted here before for his solo electric guitar work and as part of the London combo Found Drowned, while clarinettist Wigens is a new name to me. However, it’s the Athens-born player Chrysakis whose presence hangs over the group sound here, his “inside piano” resonating like a dreamy music box from Looking-Glass World and suspending the other musical contributions in a foggy soup. I’m keener on this echoey mode of his than when he attempts his sub-Cecil Taylor jazz runs, which appear to me hesitant and poorly-formed. However, he does form a simpatico bond with Wigens, and the two blend well together on their wooden platform, which may reflect the other numerous times they’ve recorded together for this label. Given the relationship of this pair, O’Sullivan sometimes doesn’t know where to put himself, and tries out any number of devices and idioms from his guitar repertoire, none of which are quite right for the occasion. Nondescript and blurry cover art, which is just about saved from disaster by a brave experiment in bold typography.
The latest instalment in the Alone Together Series of singles from Emerald Cocoon is by Pete Swanson, who’s been steadily establishing a name for himself as purveyor of extremely melancholic and harrowing music since the demise of Yellow Swans. His High Time / Trees (EC007) may have started life as simple acoustic guitar ballads, a sort of mirror-image underground version of Terry Jacks or Tim Buckley, but what’s ended up on the grooves is a thick, clotted sound arising from distortion, overdubbing, and other studio distancing strategies. Even so, the label assures us, there is still an audible “room sound” that shows the simple, natural origins of these recordings. Both songs are Swanson’s tribute to New Zealand underground rock, of which he’s a devotee. ‘High Time’ was originally recorded by Dadamah in 1991 and released by Majora as the B-side of the Nicotine single; Peter Stapleton and Roy Montgomery both featured in this important NZ band. ‘Trees’ is a more recent offering by Gate, plucked from their 2010 album of techno-ambient gloomery. In both instances, Pete Swanson transforms the songs into introverted hymns of loneliness, building a claustrophobic sound through entirely acoustic means, and delivering a pained scenario where the protagonist is so alienated and numb that they’re no longer aware of anything but a distressing, emotional confusion. The bewildering cover images (especially the back cover) merely add to the general sense of disconnect. From 30th January 2012.
Paco Rossique is a Spanish sound artist from the Canary Islands. I warmed instantly to his Collages & Dispersions (LINEAR OBSESSIONAL RECORDINGS LOR063), a visionary and dream-like mixture of field-recordings and live sounds, blended with occasional stabs at detuned and denatured musical instruments, moving beyond the obvious with prepared piano, stringed instruments and percussion, to create his own unique moments of Harry Partch-like ruggedness. His is a very personal and private universe, which we can glimpse occasionally through is subtle and under-stated works, which are haunted with memories, passing thoughts, ghosts, nostalgic longings, and unfamiliar emotions. It helps tremendously if you peruse the booklet (downloadable as a PDF) while listening; each track has its own accompanying watercolour/collage image and a text of prose/poetry, giving further clues to help unlock the hermetically sealed information. In this he strongly resembles two other introverted daydreaming visionaries who we very much like at TSP, namely Joe Frawley and Edward Ruchalski. With these spacey acousmatic interludes and trance-state fugues, the beautiful amorphous music sometimes interspersed with fragments of speaking voices and murmuring phantoms from the ethereal zones, I’ve no hesitation in greeting Paco Rossique as a Surrealist-manque, the aural equivalent of a Paul Delvaux or Leonora Carrington. An unusually rich album for this label, I might add, which I have often associated with dry and spare recordings of minimal acoustic improvisation. From 28 May 2015.
Freaky Polish neo-folk from 23 Threads on their Conspicuous Unobstructed Path (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 093-2) album…this marginal Polish combo first surfaced in 2001 with a record called Magija, which had been recorded in 1995. At that time, the band were effectively the duo of Marek Marchoff and Dorho Marchoff, with guest players appearing under mysterious aliases such as Animal’94 and Industry AW. The resulting CDR appeared on the obscure Furia Musica label in Poland, home to other intriguing avant-rock acts such as One Million Bulgarians, Mannequin and Serpent Beat.
Some 20 years later, they managed to get this new album recorded in New York. Core member Marek remains, and appears to play most of the instrumentation himself, joined by Rafal Janus with his upright bass and djembe, and the band’s new secret weapon – the chanteuse Ingrid Dawn Swen. I’m assuming, just by looking at her photos on the cover and hearing her voice, that she has quite a strong personality. She doesn’t exactly dominate the album, but when her creepy breathy whispers and implacable utterances arrive on the tape as if by stealth, all cats in the neighbourhood arch their backs and their fur stands up on end. She isn’t really singing, either – it’s more in the nature of a poetry recit, half-sung half-spoken pronouncements, with every turn filled with hidden significance. The lyrics are derived from the writings of MJ Caroline Rider, and Swen’s contribution to the project has involved a certain amount of editing to deliver only the choicest nuggets of mysterious fate.
At this point, it may not surprise you to learn that 23 Threads have an interest in the esoteric – Marek Marchoff is photographed wearing an Egyptian medallion across his bare chest, holds a rooster (a symbol persisting from their first album) in an ominous way, there’s the mystical number 23 in the band name, and the album apparently abounds in “references to esoteric tradition” as it endeavours to tell the story of “a woman moving through mysterious forests”. The genres of pagan, neo-folk and dark folk are a closed shop to me, and my interest in the works of Current 93 or Tony Wakeford is virtually nil, but 23 Threads still holds a good deal of interest even to the non-initiate. Marchoff is very skilled at creating, and sustaining, a genuinely unsettling mood with his very subtle musical arrangements, eschewing cheap drama and theatrics, and does it mainly through acoustic means – his mesmerising acoustic guitar becomes an instrument of dark magick, and each track ripples with understated atmospheres.
Further esoteric thrills to be found with the inside photos of the band posing with various symbolic devices (and hats); Ingrid certainly looks very pleased with her ceremonial dagger. For those of you intending to delve further, you may be pleased to learn the label has also reissued their debut album this year. From 5th May 2015.
Highly unusual performance record of drones, hums and growly toots by Sainct Laurens, a duo of players, in the form of their album Volume 2 (ETRC019) on the Canadian label E-Tron Rec. Montreal players Pierre-Yves Martel and Philippe Lauzier thrive in a marginal sidebar of free improvisation, clearly wanting nothing to do with those energetic sort of players who sweat it up, blart it out, and skitter about with their free-form blurts in manic passion-fuelled bouts. Instead, these two introverts exude a form of rigid control; every note they make seems to be surrendered reluctantly, and at some cost to their own physical comfort. They’ll only make an utterance if the occasion demands it, like two abstemious Quakers at a prayer meeting. They almost seem to be exploring each musical encounter anew, rather than setting out in advance knowing what they will discover.
Second noteworthy element is the unusual choice of instrumentation, which includes a viole de gambe, a bass clarinet, found objects, and amplifier feedback. Only the woodwind half of the act (Lauzier, who also blows an alto and soprano sax) allows this release to be at all recognisable as free improv, and hence gathered in the “jazz” racks at the local record store. There also seems to be something going on with prepared strings, so that one of them (Martel most likely) comes across as a low-key avant-garde miniature Gamelan ensemble, with muffled percussive blows. Their slightly stilted method, combined with their unusual sound, makes the album a winner for me; when they reach the sweet spot of unearthly tone blends, it’s near-delirious. The pair have come our way before on the album La Formule XYZ in 2012, where they did it with Martin Tétreault to great effect. From 9th February 2015.
Last heard the talented multi-instrumentalist and singer Nick Pynn in 2011, with his six-track EP talktapes, a delightful showcase for his highly companionable style and admirable performative skills. His 2015 album Waterproof (OSCAR RECORDS OSC002) is not only quite a step forward in terms of production values, but the performances are more assured than ever before. Effortlessly playing everything in sight (multiple stringed instruments and percussion), Pynn’s a one-man band whose escapades could, in the wrong pair of mitts, come off as something of a novelty gimmick, and indeed he seems to have won over the crowds of culture-consumers who flock to the Edinburgh Festival, and celeb comedian Stewart Lee has playfully dubbed him “the octopus of sound”. But I am persuaded that Pynn’s all about the craft – a genuine musician, with something personal of his own to say, and so much nervous energy spilling out of him that the only way he can express it sufficiently is through picking 18 mandolins, banjos, guitars, ukuleles, and violas (not forgetting the bass pedals and foot-operated loops he plays on stage).
Aided here by side-players John Sawicki, Kate Daisy Grant and Paul Guinter, Pynn delivers himself of 14 original songs and instrumentals, neatly evading genre pigeon-holing as he exhibits a healthy interest in acoustic folk, introverted shoegaze, post-punk rock, and ethnic-flavoured rhythms. While he’s still not much of a singer, continuing to mumble into the microphone with shy, downcast eyes, all the assurance comes through in the assembled playback, and his original poetic ideas continue to intrigue. To put it another way, the instrumental playing is bright, confident and upbeat; the singing is lugubrious, slow, and projecting the persona of a shy, gloomy fellow, but one who’s willing to take you into his confidence, and disclose things worth knowing. I see he’s quite the collaborator these days…among the roster of names he’s played alongside, there’s the great Mike Heron, and considering that the early Incredible String Band albums were pretty much multiple-overdub jobs played entirely by Heron and Robin Williamson, I’d imagine Nick Pynn felt he’d found a true progenitor for his own work. From 7th April 2015, and the successful outcome of a Kickstarter project.
Sumptuous and unusual vinyl package from Ryo Takematsu; his Six-O-Seven Blues (EM RECORDS 1117TEP) has been pressed as three seven-inch singles and housed in a sleeve with a nice thick spine, amounting to a mini-album in terms of duration. (A CD version also exists.) He plays acoustic guitar and would like nothing more than to produce an exact copy of John Fahey’s recordings, right down to the slow and lugubrious but highly precise playing style, the recording method, and even the record labels – which are designed to resemble old Blues 78s. To this end, he dispenses quickly with his sole unique composition at the start of the set – accompanied by Koya Abe on bass guitar and Bo Suzuki playing a snare drum. This track also stands out because it’s adorned with some light electronic decorations, and an overdubbed electric guitar.
Thereafter, it’s the shadow of John Fahey which bestrides most of the set like a colossus – three Fahey cover versions, including Fahey’s tribute to one of his many progenitors, the great Mississippi John Hurt (a Delta bluesman who had a near-unique melodic ripple-picking style and was capable of playing complex ragtime songs, not just 12-bar). Plus one tune by Skip James, and another by William “Bill” Moore, whose ‘Old Country Rock’ from 1928 is a staple of many 1960s blues compilation LPs. Takematsu plays flawlessly. The studied deliberation of his playing deserves your awe and respect. The recording also, as previously noted, is very close to the way Fahey’s records project – as if the microphone were inserted inside the sounding box, producing the effect of a gigantic guitar that’s 18 feet tall. Impressively, he recorded the work in a home studio.
For Fahey fans who want a near-exact reproduction of the Master, you need look no further. Whereas Steffen Basho-Junghans has taken the music of Fahey (and Robbie Basho) as a starting point for his own intense improvisations and compositions, Ryo Takematsu is content to make his Fahey impersonation an end in itself. Only the final track, a re-edit of ‘On Doing An Evil Deed Blues’ created by Tomoki Kanda spoils the mood for this listener by making dancey loops from the music and adding a puny disco beat to the results. Otherwise a very nice item! From November 2013.
Very impressed by Kompleta (ICI D’AILLEURS / MIND TRAVELS MT04), a composition of liturgical music and song by the Polish composer Stefan Wesołowski. Inside a framework of stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello) playing continuous drones in a minor key, he and singer Maja Siemińska perform psalm-like responsories in a fittingly solemn manner. All the old-school gloom and Catholic guilt you could wish for; all it needs is a censer burning to complete the devotional effect. Wesolowski has also done similar things assisting the electro-acoustic composer Michał Jacaszek, for instance 2009’s Pentral recorded in various churches in Gdańsk, for which Stefan did the vocal arrangements and performed on the record too. Amazingly, he composed Kompleta when he was only 21. He may have some way to go if he wants to beat Penderecki, but this is a moving and sincere work. From April 2015.
Another grand piece of sombre, rich drone music from Italian latterday Industrial creator Simon Balestrazzi. His Ultrasonic Bathing Apparatus (SINCOPE SIN031) proposes a deep dive into cold psychological waters, and with its titles such as ‘First Immersion’ and ‘Second Immersion’ even supplies its own metaphorical interpretation, such that we can’t help hearing this as “music for the diving chamber”. He does it with a combination of field recordings, tapes, acoustic instruments and analogue electronic devices, passing all the recorded results over the loom of processing equipment which he keeps in NeuroHabitat – a zone which I presume is his secret underground mixing lair. The claustrophobic sense of deep pressure and airlessness he manages to achieve at times is impressive. A nice departure from the usual spirit world / occult themed records we usually hear from this fellow. From 24 April 2015.
earnear are a Portuguese trio producing superb free acoustic jazz-improv materials on their self-titled album released by a label in Quebec (TOUR DE BRAS TDB9012cd). The viola of João Camões is to the fore most of the time, and a truly demonic squeely line he produces, one that’s so razor-sharp you could use it to peel your own skin like a potato. But the piano of Rodrigo Pinheiro introduces tones of uncertainty with his minimalistic, mixed chords that resemble the bones of a beached albatross, while underpinning the two is the modest cello work of Miguel Mira, who murmurs dark oaths with a surly frown. While ‘Imprint’ and ‘Theoretical Morning’ are quite lively, they are also salty and somewhat pessimistic in tone, as though a Leroy Jenkins LP woke up after a night out with Cecil Taylor and is now passing through a hangover the size of Passaic. Exploratory tunes such as ‘Dream Theory’ and ‘Time Leak’ are not only more introverted and quieter in tone, but they also pass on terrible feelings of metaphysical doubt, even through their very titles. Dry, precise, and unsentimental acoustic music. A fine recording. From April 2015.
Seems we haven’t heard a song-based album from the great Sharron Kraus for some time now, not since 2010’s The Woody Nightshade; in the interim we did receive the largely instrumental and very wispy acoustic affair, In The Rheidol Valley which she made with Michael Tanner in the open air. So her 2015 album Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers (CLAYPIPE MUSIC pipe 011) is welcome, and even though the vinyl edition is already sold out (released May 2015) there is still a Bandcamp download available. In these nine songs Kraus attempts to come to terms with the Mabinogion, the collection of early Welsh material (assembled in the middle ages, but probably derived from an oral tradition that pre-dates that) which for a long time was regarded by scholars as a form of folklore or stemming from pagan mythology, but is now (according to Wikipedia) treated as a form of prose literature, on account of the sophisticated characterisation and layered story-telling devices. I’m at a loss, never having read these important texts (the last time this came up was when we spoke to Dafydd Roberts of Our Glassie Azoth in the 1990s), but then it seems Sharron herself is also coming to terms with the enormity of the task she’s taken on. She freely admits that she was enchanted by the Mabinogion when she started reading, but also felt confused and even mystified by what was going on in the texts, or what it was she was responding to. She dealt with the situation in the only way an artist should, by making that confusion into art. Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers is not intended as an “authoritative” interpretation of the text, rather as one person’s intimate and personal response. I’m all for it.
The gorgeous songs on the record of course betray no sign of confusion at all, rather the simple clarity and straightforward delivery that Sharron Kraus’s singing voice – and honest personality – was born to deliver. Throughout each piece her voice remains steady and assured as she illuminates and illustrates her lyrics, themselves as tricky and layered as I assume the original text to be; strange characters, strange motives, and even permitting herself an occasional meta-commentary on the whole process; “we are born into a story,” she sings on ‘A Hero’s Death’, suggesting something about the inevitability of fate. Or something about the culture of story-telling, how reality slowly becomes fossilised into narrative form. Maybe she’s trying to reverse that fossilisation process, make the statues leap up and dance. The Mabinogion is not unlike the Arthurian legends, with kings, queens, battles, powerful themes of love and death; there’s plenty of scope for excitement, but Sharron’s songs are drained of any display of untoward emotion, and in true tradition of oral story-teller or ballad singer, she simply reports the information as directly and clearly as possible. The musical backdrop is also a model of clarity, all acoustic guitars, dulcimer, percussion and recorders, played mostly by Sharron with the help of Harriet Earls on harp and regular mainstay Nick Palmer on piano, plus Nancy Wallace with harmony vocals. Frances Castle, who runs the Clay Pipe Music label, did the beautiful cover illustration; her award-winning work harks back to the golden days of Albion when Eric Ravilious reigned supreme. Received 2nd March 2015.
Ashley Paul has relaunched her tiny hand-made label Wagtail Records and in August this year she had a table at the Peckham Independent Label Fair exhibiting with other boutique micro-labels who are likewise releasing exciting stuff in unusual packages. In February this year she sent us a copy of release #4, a cassette by Ben Pritchard called A Drawn Out Line (WAGTAIL 004). Very much a personal artistic statement, this record is just steeped in its own modesty…small edition, delicate packaging, and with a recording quality that, while clear and uncluttered, doesn’t waste money on unnecessary production values. As for Pritchard himself, he plays a mean abstract acoustic guitar, but does so in a manner that suggests he doesn’t expect anyone to be actually listening. I’d love to see his hands at work…I’m sure the sight would give Andy Summers a fit of apoplexy. And just wait till you hear his songs, offered up with a diffident and tentative singing voice lost swimming around the rocks of his own sad and mysterious symbols. We might almost call him the lost connection between Derek Bailey and Leonard Cohen. If it sounds so far like I’m describing the very embodiment of an introverted bedroom guitarist, then frankly that’s all to the good. I think the world needs more introverts. We’ve already got far too many extroverts, especially in music, many of them pushing their lack of talent and ability in your face while they try to get by on sheer bravado.
Getting back to Ben Pritchard, it seems his acoustic guitar is “prepared” in some way, and it could be he’s applied some interesting muffling devices to the strings, but he gets some fascinating percussive effects in between his insistent strumming method and his wayward sliding solos. Fans of Robert Johnson or any blues guitarist who projects an instant impression of playing two guitars at once 1 may want to investigate using their blue ears, although the abstraction and strange language inherent in Pritchard’s unusual playing may not appeal immediately. Personally I think it’s wonderful, fragile and ethereal, and at times veers close to the first faltering indications of someone living in a private world, and trying to describe what it’s like. This kind of creative solipsism has, I suggest, been the ideal of any post-Jandek musician who fancies himself an “outsider” just because he or she experiences occasional feelings of disaffection when they’re standing in the bus queue, but I’m prepared to believe Pritchard is the real deal, a convincing creator who keeps pushing away at his themes even if it’s not entirely clear to him where they are leading, or what they mean. Rugged and raw art-creation at its most uncooked. I can see why Ashley Paul likes his work, and she contributes clarinet to one of the songs too. Lovely limited item with hand-made artworks, recommended. From 26 February 2015.
- I have in mind the famous Keith Richards anecdote here. ↩